This is #21 of The Autumn Queen. To start at the beginning, go here.
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“Mam!” was his first word. “Ness!” came soon after. We named him, but always called him ‘Boy’ as he grew, Grey Ness and I. She hung on for years, until he was a sound young lad of eight, and then we wreathed her in flowers, sung her naming song, and gave her back to the sky.
When she was gone asked me again of his father, and I told him what Ness and I had told him a hundred thousand times, even when he was too little to understand:
“Your father was the shadow that hid the moon. When he covered her, you were born.”
He answered, “I love yer, mam,” with his little voice that sounded all full of country. I full well told him, “I love yer, my own son,” comfortable with how I’d had to change. I knew my upbringing in the city weren’t elegant, and the rough speak of the hillfolk was easy enough to assimilate.
When he was but ten, he asked again, and the answer was the same, and he told me he loved me, and I told him the same.
When he was thirteen, he asked again — and when he was a grown man of twenty, preparing to make his venture into the world, he asked once more.
“Mam,” said he, plain and hopeful. “Tell me about my dear da.”
“Why do you ask again and again, boy?” I wondered.
“Because I love yer, mam,” he said, but the look on his young man’s face was sad.
“You love me, my own son?” I asked. “Why does it fell your face, then, to love me so?”
“Because you keep secrets from me, mam,” he said, and the worries I put aside near twenty years ago– to run far with him on my breast, to escape what high lords or ladies might have wanted with him, after giving him to me and then having my own family, my own flesh and blood cut down in the night–they came back, all teeth and claws.
“What can you mean, Boy?” I asked. “To call your own mam a liar?”
He smiled a secret smile he learned from the night itself, and reached out to take my hands. “Mam,” said he, “I love yer. I do. With all my bones and all my blood,” he promised. “But I been talking to the moon,” he said. “While she wears her Hidden Face. She tells me things. ”
I cursed aloud, but then put my hands over my mouth, shaking my head.
“Mam,” he said, looking shocked. “That mouth is for prayers!”
“I didn’t know,” I said. “I had no idea you would hear the moon.” I cursed the men that put the babe into my arms. I cursed the woman that bore him. I cursed everything I could think of, and then I put my face in my hands and cried like I was a little girl again come to find my own pretty Puss that I gave milk and fish heads to, dead of my da’s boot.
I cried of my world’s ending.
My son, my own son, this darling Boy of mine, that didn’t come of my womb but wore my heartsblood — he knew me for the liar I was, and now I knew him for the monster he would grow to be.
“Mam,” he said, putting his arms around me, putting his cheek to mine. “Why do you cry, mam?”
“Because I kept secrets,” I said, holding him tight. “And those secrets mean you’ve a life ahead of pain I can’t spare ye,” I told him. “My own boy; yer mam’s so sorry.”
“Why? Because of my da?”
“No, my own son. Because of your true mam,” said I. “Don’t hate your dear mam, my own son; they gave you to me to keep safe, and love as my own.”
“I don’t understand, mam,” he said, looking shocked. “You’re not–”
“I’ve loved you,” I said, taking his hands. “I love you with all my bones and all my blood,” I promise him. “But you were born of another, and given to me to nurse and keep safe. When you were but days old, the Order came and kilt my family, looking for you. They kilt my wee boy, my own bairn, but they didn’t find you. I didn’t know you belonged to her, Boy, or I’d have told you sooner.”
“Who is she, mam?” he asked, fear on his face, rather than wonder.
“She’s the reason you can talk to the moon, my little duckling. Her name is Lily — and she’s The Autumn Queen.”
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